India's Tata Nano to follow the trajectory of Duchamp's Fountaine?
By Jenny Fan
posted: 03-23-11
Tata Nano at Cornell University (March, 2011) Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/
Image Source

Any purported parallel trajectory between Marcel Duchamp’s Fountaine (1918) and India’s Tata Nano may strike many as odd.  After all, what does the most infamous urinal that rocked the art world in the twentieth century has in common with a compact car produced in India in the twenty-first? If the story of  Duchamp’s Fountain largely describes an inconsequential object, morphed into a concept, that has indelicately grown in momentum with time, what could we expect from the Nano and its implications for India and the world: the beginnings of the conceptual automobile, or a fugacious glory run hitched on Duchampian legacy?

Introduced first domestically in 2009 by India’s Tata Motors, the Nano is billed as the ultra cheap, “people’s car.”  At $2,900, as of last December, it is considered the world’s most affordable compact car.  Its appearance is like an American golf car, but with 2 cylinder petrol, four-doors and four-passengers.  Some of the quirks of a Nano are its absence of a stereo player, air bags and power steering.  For anyone whose childhood dream is to drive on the outskirts of Stuttgart on the German Autobahn while listening to Celine Dion, the Nano might not be the ideal vehicle.  The Nano in India, however, is financially within reach of the growing middle class, many of whom are looking to upgrade from motor scooters as a manifestation of social mobility.

The Nano, after being introduced in the U.S. in 2010, was adopted by Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art for its Winter 2011 exhibition, "Unpacking the Nano: the Price of the World’s Most Affordable Car.”  The exhibition features a dismantled Nano suspended in air and a concept Nano with two used motor scooters.  A symposium was held earlier this March examining the car design and the socio-cultural implications of the Nano. Professor Arjun Appadural, one of the keynote speakers, addressed some of the issues concerning the latter.  One of his probes revolved around “what does the car want,” arguably recalling Dadaist sensibility. 

Appadural, currently the Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, began with a curt analysis of the Nano’s potential market outside of India, and the logistics of manufacturing, supplying and distributing the Nano worldwide. What with India’s exploding middle class, the Nano has the potential to create a burgeoning class of drivers who, not only will demand more from businesses as they become accustomed to the role of middle class consumers, but will also demand access to better roads, highways and other amenities (financing, credit, etc) from the government. 

Appadural asserted, “I am certain that those who buy, use and ride in the Nano will be induced to think more richly about their own social trajectories in an increasingly globalized world. It will give them no choice but to learn more about design, utility, price, energy, credit and other invisible parts of the infrastructure of modernity.”

He continued by echoing the wisdom of Jawaharla Nehru, the founding father of modern India, and J. R. D. Tata, who once asserted that “the future is a combination of great technical visions and of great social transformations” both of which are dependent on the “enthusiasm of the masses.”

The "enthusiasm of the masses," however, is engineered.  It will derive only a small fraction of its vigor from the aesthetic and design of, say, the actual vehicle.  Most of it will arise from the confrontation between present exigencies and the solutions of creative minds.  India, being the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest growing economies, not only needs innovative solutions, but needs them to engineer, educate and feed its growing middle class.  Engineering its middle class and engineering the "enthusiasm of the masses” is almost like the chicken and the egg; whichever comes first is no longer relevant.  The point is about defining and warping an authentic, modern Indian experience.  Its middle class families are faced with, not the violence and trauma of World War I that the Dadaists had to confront, but the violence of modernity that has been thrust upon them chaotically. 

The Nano may bill itself, thus, as the “anti-car.”  Everything for which the conventional twentieth-century car stood, the Nano stands the opposite.  Whereas the twenty-century automobile was concerned with largeness, speed, efficiency and function, the Nano ignores, or at least prides itself on adhering to what Appadural sees as Indian society's “density, intricacy and manoeurability.”  Whereas the titular American car is static, and used as a passive tool of transportation by many families, the Nano is dynamic; it is the yardstick of an Indian family’s learning curve in becoming educated middle class consumers and engaging in their responsibilities as twenty-first century Indian citizens. 

Appadural also sees the Nano as a tool with which an Indian family can realize their social mobility and sensibilities of modern living.  The Nano helps an Indian faily define and navigate the increasingly complicated world of automobiles.  "To such a person, and to his or her family, the Nano is a tool for imagining the future,” Appadural continued "The Nano has the potential to spark the Indian taste for packing more into less, not because all Indians are ascetics, or Bauhasians or green philosophers, but because they like the intricacy and the intensity of sociality."

The Nano, in Appadural’s words, has become a portal and non-literal vehicle for an Indian citizen to become a stronger, more reflective consumer/citizen.  That the Nano “stimulates the capacity of Indian consumers to think about the future as something which they themselves can shape through their daily lives,” he asserted, is an amazing feat and complement of the Nano, to say the least.  The social and cultural trajectory that Appadural paved for the Nano continues as follows, “Marcel Duchamp showed us that today's urinal can become tomorrow's found object, in the right artistic hands...[...]” 

To date, the Nano hasn’t been selling well in India though, nor has it made an appearance in the automobile market elsewhere.  It may have been netted in a Catch-22.  The cheap price of the Nano has made it affordable for the growing middle class, but that as the middle class grows, its mounting aspiration to live better lives needs more significant if substantive status symbols, which put it at odds with the image of the Nano. For the most part, the most popular and best-selling cars in India are still small, fuel-efficient Japanese-made cars like Maruti Suzuki.  At Tato Motors, there are also growing problems with production costs and addressing some of the engineering quirks.

Cornell University’s “Unpacking the Nano” exhibition at the Johnson Museum runs until March 29, 2011

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